The importance of ethical wills

The importance of ethical wills

Rabbi Paul Tuchman
Rabbi Paul Tuchman

Parshat Ha’azinu Deuteronomy 32:1-52

At the end of his life, Moses addresses us, the Israelites, for the last time in the Torah portion of Ha’azinu. He recounts the blessings that we have enjoyed and depicts God as an eagle with nestlings, a guardian, guide, warrior and sustaining parent.

But we Israelites are ungrateful, and we would suffer for it if not for Israel’s enemies taking credit for God’s actions. Instead, God will store up our ingratitude and unleash divine anger on our enemies when our destruction is imminent. God will again be seen with full divine strength, redemptive power and compassion.

We should take these words to heart and enjoin them upon our children, because our continued faithfulness to God is essential for our survival.

This address to Israel at the end of Moses’s life is a model for a traditional practice that you may want to consider for yourself: an ethical will. This is a document in which you can communicate to your heirs the values that you think are most important, in the hope that they will continue to make real what has been most important to you.

There are many examples of ethical wills in our literature, and you don’t have to look far to find them. Many have been gathered in anthologies for easy reference and lasting guidance.

What would you tell your children, and how would you tell them? Would you scold them, as Moses did the Israelites? Would you recall the good times you have had together? Would you recount the “teachable moments”? Would you tell them the experiences that shaped your values? Would you give them advice?

Moses exhorts us to know God in the many ways that God can be known: to be grateful, obedient and faithful and to raise our children to be the same. He says that all is never lost and that God will save us. If you are writing your own ethical will, this is a good place to start.

These Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe, are a powerful incentive to this kind of introspection. What is most important to you, and how will you teach it to those you will leave behind? Now is a good time to make some notes and even begin to write your thoughts for posterity. Bring all your wisdom, experience and faith to this work.

May you have a sweet, healthy and happy New Year, with God’s seal of goodness upon it. And Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Paul Tuchman is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.